Disaster Styles

It would be unfair to compare Myanmar Junta leader, Than Shwe’s response to Cyclone Nargis to George Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina. For one thing, the two disasters were separated by thousands of miles. Furthermore, Burma initially rejected all foreign aid. Mr. Bush only rejected aid from Cuba.

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New Orleans Envies Iraq

If people in New Orleans and environs are feeling depressed at the pace of reconstruction they should take heart from Iraq. Unlike New Orleans, Iraq has not dropped off George Bush’s radar screen and nonetheless things continue to go badly on the reconstruction front. According to the most recent quarterly report by Stuart Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, there is precious little to show for the $21 billion Congress put into the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction fund created in 2003.

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A Funny Kind of Thanks

Again we have been treated to the workings of a truly compassionate administration. In one case it took two tries, in the other it was doing what comes naturally and got it right the first time. FEMA is the teacher.

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Paper-thin Trail

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy
Walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud. – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Golly. All people are thinking about are the hurricane victims. No one is thinking about poor Michael Brown who is now unemployed. It’s not the first time.

Stephen Jones, the lawyer who defended Timothy McVeigh, hired Mr. Brown fresh out of law school. Explaining his decision to let Mr. Brown go during a firm reorganization he said to a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times: “He did not develop the way we wanted. He was average.” If Mr. Brown had heard that it would have saddened him. After all, when he looked at the resume he’d created he could tell he was anything but average. It described lots of good things he’d done in his relatively short life.

As he was getting on an airplane to fly home from New Orleans to his wife and children he said he was anxious “to get back to D.C. to correct all the inaccuracies and lies.” He didn’t say what “inaccuracies and lies” he was thinking of although he was critical of journalists whom he accused of rushing to judgment about him. He might have been critical of his resume that seemed intent on embarrassing him. What’s more he probably can’t get out of his mind all the nice things the senators said about him during his confirmation hearing to become the deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The fact that they were inspired by his mischievous resume didn’t make them any less nice. And once they were on his resume, Mr. Brown himself understandably started to believe them. Here are two nice things that were said about him during the hearing.

Former Colorado Senator Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell said: “He is dedicated, tenacious, and he is exactly the type of individual who has given up probably a better lifestyle to be in public service and we certainly appreciate all of that.” Sen. Campbell was probably not aware that Mr. Brown had been asked to leave his position at the Arabian Horse Association. His dismissal from that post had nothing to do with disasters although according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times, Mary Anne Grimmell, former association president, and Karl Hart, a former board member said a number of suits had been filed against the association and Mr. Brown during Mr. Brown’s tenure. None was successful and the organization agreed to pay for the defense of those suits. Nonetheless, Mr. Brown raised $50,000 for his own defense from friends and supporters and pocketed the money. When that was discovered he was asked to leave the organization and that’s when he joined FEMA. Not everyone would consider his experience a “better lifestyle” or the kind of disaster with which FEMA is expected to cope.

Senator Joe Lieberman said: “Mr. Brown, you have extensive management experience. For this job you will need it.” Mr. Brown had no management experience. His resume said he had been the Assistant City Manager in Edmund, Oklahoma. What it should have said was that Mr. Brown had been an assistant TO the city manager in which capacity he had no oversight over employees. According to reporters for Time magazine who investigated his background, Claudia Deakins who is public relations head for Edmond said: “The assistant is more like an intern.”

The resume said he was the “Outstanding Political Science Professor, Central State University.” The Time reporters learned that he was never on the faculty at that institution. The school did confirm he had been a student at that institution but not that he was the “Outstanding Political Science Senior” as his resume revised on September 8, 2005, stated.

In announcing his nomination the White House said Mr. Brown had been the “Executive Director of the Independent Electrical Contractors”, a trade group in Alexandria, Va. That was wrong, too, although it is unclear whether that was something he told the White House or that his resume mischievously said. According to Newsday, two officials from the organization said he’d never held that post but was executive director of a regional chapter in Oklahoma. That chapter’s director said Mr. Brown held that post for less than 6 weeks.

I’m sure Mr. Brown felt terrible that people suffered because of his ineptitude, a feeling that was almost certainly exacerbated because the whole world was aware of it. On top of that, to have everyone made aware of the fact that his resume was a fraud made him look dishonest as well as incompetent. There is nothing Mr. Brown can do about his incompetence and dishonesty. He can, however, get a new resume. He may even be able to get one off the Internet at no charge. He should do that before applying for another job.

Letting Go of New Orleans.

New Orleans is gone. Do not rebuild New Orleans.
The arguments for New Orleans are self-evident, and will be repeated ad nauseum in the months to come. There are the arguments on behalf of the city itself: It is historical. It is a major port. It is an economic engine. It is the home of many people. Then there are the arguments on behalf of the rebuilding effort per se: that it is somehow a worthy act of defiance, ipso facto noble and American. There is much right with these arguments, but there is more wrong. Sane analysis is frequently absent in crises – and it is no exaggeration to state that this is America’s worst since 9/11 – but in the absence of a threatening enemy, we owe ourselves and the people of New Orleans the deliberation that was absent on the eve, and in the wake, of their catastrophe.

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Numbers

It seems grotesque, in a manner, to rank and compare catastrophes, particularly when they involve the loss of human life. To do so often enough appears to buy into the sentiment of Stalin’s cruel quip that a single man dead is a tragedy, but a million dead is a statistic. Still, there are comparative scales of suffering, and it is enough to note that the suffering attendant to Katrina is immense. Even if we do not arrive at the feared toll of thousands dead, the dozens we know were drowned or crushed in the storm’s course is a heavy burden in itself.
All of this is by way of acknowledging that there are already comparisons being made between Katrina and 9/11. It is quite possible that Katrina may yet be known to exact a higher toll than that day. From this, policy conclusions are being drawn. There’s little sense in going through them, except to note that they are policy conclusions meant almost exclusively to further the loathesome and strenuous efforts to blame the Administration for this act of God. The line goes that the American political leadership chose to focus upon the actual and possible lives lost due to terrorism at the expense of the actual and possible lives lost due to natural disasters like Katrina. As has been noted elsewhere here, governance is an exercise in prioritization; those advancing the aforementioned line presumably adhere to the premise that the determinant of priorities is plain quantity of lives lost.
This is wrong.
The major killers of Americans are, of course, neither terrorism nor hurricanes. Rather, they are, in no particular order: automobiles, fat-laden burgers, the flu, other Americans, etc. We do not, as a rule, reorder life and policy for these things as we would for terrorism or hurricanes. There is a school of thought, mostly in the ranks of public health professionals, that argues we ought to do precisely that. Most people disagree, as they recognize on some level that there are differing moral qualities to deaths: every human life is equally precious, but the moral context of each life’s end varies. It is traditionally the concern of government to address only specific moral contexts of death. Murder is the primary example, and while Western governments have moved ever-further into involvement in the contexts of deaths by other means — acts of God and disease-related most notably — it remains the prime example.
This, then, is the fallacy at the heart of the emerging comparisons between 9/11 and Katrina. The Bush Administration was quite right to orient policy and priorities toward the former. The latter, too, was and remains a just concern of government (even if we have long since established that the ideal scenarios called-for by the left in the past 48 hours would not have saved New Orleans): but it is of necessity a lesser concern. We all live with acts of God and the specter of disaster. We do what we can; but some of us choose to move to major earthquake zones; some of us choose to build homes in natural lahar pathways; some of us choose to live in walled cities precariously below sea level. Government cannot protect us wholesale from that danger we court. It cannot thwart the aptly-named act of God.
It can, though, pursue a band of fanatical murderers to the ends of the earth, in implicit recognition that the deaths by their hands, unlike the deaths at the hands of the anthropomorphized Katrina, are something irretrievably foul, base, and — murderous. God save those who would have a numbers game obscure that.